Dr. Ravetz’s first posting on WUWT created quite a controversey. You can read it here:
Answer and explanation to my critics –
Guest post by Jerome Ravetz
First, I want to apologise for my long silence. I have been overwhelmed by the volume and quality of the comments on this and other blogs, and just keeping up with them, while writing and also meeting other urgent commitments, has been a full time job. I had nearly completed this when my daytime job ran into emergency phase, and I was delayed a bit further. I am not at all afraid to put my point of view and see what happens.
The next thing to say is that I believe that my critics and I are fundamentally on the same side. The basic motivation for our design of post-normal science was to help maintain the health and integrity of science under the new conditions in which it now operates. I believe that my critics share this concern. I can learn from them how I might have expressed myself better, or even how I have been just wrong in this case as sometimes in the past, or perhaps that our disagreements on practical issues are just too deep to be bridged.
Since my history is relevant to the debate, let me make a few very brief points. I did grow up in a left-wing household in the ‘thirties, and I recall that it took about a decade, from my teens onwards, for me to make a complete sorting out of political Marxism. Remembering this process gives me perspective on disagreements that take place now; both I and my interlocutor are (hopefully) moving and learning even if we do not show it. A very big event for me was attending Swarthmore College, where I was exposed to the Quaker approach to living and discussing, and also to the way of non-violence. As with other influences, this one took decades to mature. I went to Cambridge, England and did a Ph.D in pure mathematics, settled here and later seized the chance to move to Leeds to study and teach the History and Philosophy of Science.
Even as I was getting started on that, I developed a critical stance. For me, ‘nuclear deterrence’ was not only immoral, but also crazy, as it involved calculating with the incalculable – the Theory of Games with ten-megadeath payoffs. I was pleased to learn later that after the Cuba crisis the military came to the same conclusion, and created a new doctrine Mutually Assured Destruction. Also, I wrote about the ‘Mohole scandal’, an early case of the corruption of Big Science. All those reflections, among others, led to my big book, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. I was concerned with the way that ‘academic science’ was giving way to ‘industrialised science’, and was thereby vulnerable to new corrupting influences. My solution then was a very sketchy ‘critical science’, cast very much in ’60’s terms. My radical friends were very cross that I concluded the book, not with a call to militancy, but with a prayer about cultivating truth in charity, by Francis Bacon.
I was very aware of the new currents in the philosophy of science, and knew most of the big players. As many saw it, the inherited philosophy of science as Truth could no longer be sustained. Indeed, once Einstein had (in the general interpretation) shown that Newton was wrong about space, no scientific statement could be assumed to be free of error. Popper tried to rescue Science by seeing it as essentially an activity of criticism and self-criticism, on the model of a free society. But Kuhn was the philosopher of industrialised science, and his ‘normal science’ was an activity of myopic ‘puzzle-solving’ within a dogmatically imposed paradigm. He was personally very uncomfortable with this unflattering picture, but that’s the way he saw it. I understood ‘normal science’ as a picture of what happens in science education, where almost all students learn by precept that for every problem there is just one and only one solution, expressed to several significant digits. I now realise that I have made a very big mistake in assuming that my readers on the blogs understand this about Kuhn; mainly they assume that ‘normal’ science is something that reflective, self-critical scientists like themselves do. So that is the first cause of disagreement, and also a reminder to me that the term ‘post-normal’ might itself be obsolescent. Silvio Funtowicz and I worked with titles for several years, and finally chose this one as the least problematic – possibly another mistake!
Before we started on PNS, I spent some time with Silvio on the management of uncertainty, which led to our joint book Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy. We were convinced that in spite of the universal assumption that quantitative science has solved its problems of uncertainty, in fact there is very widespread confusion and incompetence. We designed a notational system, NUSAP, whereby these qualitative aspects of quantitative information could be effectively expressed. We also pondered on the question, now that Truth is no longer effective in science (unless we accept paradoxes like ‘incorrect truths’ or ‘false facts’), what is there as a regulative principle? The answer is Quality, which itself is a very complex attribute. I confess that we did not spend much time, as I see it now not enough, in explaining this substitution of Quality for Truth. It is all too easy to see it as a betrayal of the ideals of science, and opening the door to political and other corruptions. One reason for this error is that by that time I was leaving academe, and lost the contact with students that would have tested my ideas against their experience. The issue is discussed in an article by Silvio Funtowicz, ‘Peer Review and Quality Control’ in the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Science’ – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/referenceworks/0080430767. I have also done a condensed sketch of my ideas on Quality, that will be posted here.
It should be on the record that I always stayed clear of arguments in which Science in general came under attack. That happened in the ‘Science Wars’ debates, when the social-scientists seemed to be saying that science was nothing-but constructions, or negotiations, or what have you. Every now and then I see it mentioned that I took part in those debates, but that is a complete error. For me, the attack was misconceived and counterproductive. For me the biggest issue is ‘normal scientists’ doing research that is competent in its own terms, but whose ‘unintended consequences’ can be harmful or indeed total. I am also concerned with the maintenance of quality in science; this is by no means assured, and both the Credit Crunch and Climategate show what happens when quality-assurance fails.
I would be very grateful for a favour from my more severe critics. This would be to buy a copy of my inexpensive new book, A No-Nonsense Guide to Science and examine it. They will plenty of critical material there. I point to the dangers of what I call ‘mega-science’ and the new technologies that are uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable: GRAINN or genomics, robotics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and nanotechnology. I also cast doubt on the certitudes of science, pointing out some important errors, some famous and some suppressed from history. I cite the Quaker principle, ‘never forget that you might be wrong’. At the end I produce a questionnaire for students who are wondering whether a career in science will realise their ideals. I am sure that some more conservative people in that community find the book subversive; I wonder whether my present critics will find that it encourages malign external influences (governments, businesses or demagogues) to meddle with science.
Then came the notorious Post-Normal Science, which until now has not really attracted very much attention in the mainstream. I’ve met people who found it an inspiration and liberation, as it enabled them to recognise the deep uncertainties in their scientific work that colleagues wished to ignore. Its core is the mantram, ‘facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent’. We are not saying that this is a desirable, natural or normal state for science. We place it by means of a diagram, a quadrant-rainbow with two axes. These are ‘systems uncertainties’ and ‘decision stakes’. When both are small, we have ‘applied science’, which must be the vast majority of scientific work in keeping civilisation running. When either is medium, we have ‘professional consultancy’, like the surgeon or consultant engineer. The basic insight of PNS is that there is another zone, where either attribute is large.
My favourite example for PNS is a dam, discussed in the ‘Pittsburgh’ lecture on my website. The principle of the dam, making hydro-electricity, is a matter of science. The design of the dam, coping with the uncertainties of nature and making design decisions about its operation, is a matter of professional consultancy. For PNS, I imagined that the lake as originally planned would possibly drown a part of a Civil War battlefield cemetery, a most sacred site in America. The boundaries of the cemetery were indistinct, and the loss of water storage would be costly. This was an issue where neither science, nor professions were adequate for a solution. The thought of putting Party hacks or eco-activists in charge of explaining the science of the dam or crreating its design, was very far from my intention. As it happens, dams can be intensely political indeed, as some peoples’ lands and homes are drowned so that others far away can benefit from their products; should we leave all those decisions to scientists and engineers?
Of course there was a political implication in all this, although PNS was presented as a methodology. We were sensitive to the experience of laypersons who were deemed incompetent and illegitimate by the professionals who controlled the problems and solutions. Lyme Disease is a good early example of this. The book Late Lessons from Early Warnings, published by the European Environment Agency has a whole set of examples from all over. Now ‘participation’ is enshrined as a principle of policy formation in the European Union, and in many special policy areas in the USA.
In retrospect, it could be said that PNS, and in particular the ‘Extended Peer Community’ was conceived in a left-wing framework, enabling little people to fight scientific battles against big bad corporations (state and private) and professional elites. As I look at it from the perspective of Climategate, it’s quite possible that that particular design is less well adapted to this present case, although I found it very fruitful to imagine the blogosphere (including, especially, wattsupwiththat) as a valuable example of an Extended Peer Community. However, let me proceed a bit further. There are two other conceptions that say similar things. One is the doctrine of ‘wicked problems’, that was conceived by planners who were disillusioned with the naïve scientism of the ’60’s. The other is the theory of the ‘honest broker’ developed by Roger Pielke Jr. He starts from the assumption that what scientists do in the policy process is not simply ‘telling Truth to Power’. Rather, they are offering information or advice which must be tailored to the requirements of the client. In that sense they are acting as consultants. His target is the ‘stealth advocates’, who tell the world and perhaps themselves that they are merely stating scientific truths while they are actually arguing for a particular agenda. We should notice that in this case a naïve philosophy of science, that of the scientist as discovering and stating simple Truth, actually deprives scientists of self-understanding, and thereby makes them more vulnerable to the corruption of the good.
That brings me more or less up to date. Let me deal with the political background first, for on this there may be irreconcilable differences that are best brought out into the open. If my own political bias has led me into trouble, I have the consolation that others are not immune. Thus we can understand much of background to the Credit Crunch (which may soon destroy us all) when we learn that Alan Greenspan was a devotee of Ayn Rand, and therefore believed, until it was too late, that the state is evil and the markets perfect. As to myself, my baggage is well known. The hostile historical analysis in ScientistForTruth (http://buythetruth.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/climate-change-and-the-death-of-science/)is excellent, really recommended reading. It also provides a compelling example of the risks of explanation of a doctrine by others. There is a quote from a colleague of mine about PNS which seems implicitly to reduce scientists to being merely one actor among many in the extended peer community. It has them throwing away Truth in favour of Quality, where this concept is not explained. I can well understand a critic interpreting this as an invitation to mob rule in science. I should really have made it emphatically clear that by ‘extended peer community’ I never meant ‘replacement peer community’ – but it’s too late now!
Again, I take for granted that ‘applied science’ is the basic, common and essential form of activity for our civilization to persist, and that PNS performs an essential regulatory function where necessary, under those special conditions. And I have thought a lot about quality and its protection. I could easily edit that text and ensure that my own meaning (which I’m sure is shared by my colleague) is conveyed. It is a cautionary tale to me, how a doctrine goes out of control when it is broadcast. The same thing has happened with Mike Hulme, and by association with him I have been denounced as a Marxist enemy of science by James Delingpole in The Spectator on 20th of February. It’s ironic that I got my real breakthrough in understanding what is going on with Climategate when I identified all the critics on their blogs (and especially this one) as the new Extended Peer Community in this post-normal science situation. For they have been doing the job of quality-assurance that, in some cases at least, was not done by the mainstream. They might have to decide now whether they really want to belong to an Extended Peer Community, and thereby validate post-normal science.
I am well familiar with the abuses of science by big government and big business; I confess that I find it difficult to imagine how environmentalists can wreak the same sort of damage. Some may believe that Al Gore is fronting for the Trilateral Commission, the UN, the Bilderburgers or the Illuminati, but that doesn’t fit with my experience of power-politics. And, quite interestingly I now more clearly see my own bias, or presumption of plausibility, towards the Green side. The evidence for that is that while I found most of Michael Crichton’s novels quite illuminating, I never bothered to read Fear. It was simply implausible to me that environmentalists would create a terror attack. And plausibility goes a long way in conditioning expectations and even perceptions. Live and learn.
Another important difference between my critics and myself, I now realise, is that for them the A(C)GW issue is not post-normal at all. They have been certain for some time that the core argument for A(C)GW is based on scientific fraud. This does not deny that much or most of climate science, recognising and coping with deep scientific uncertainties, is sound; it’s the policy-relevant core, that we might call ‘global-warming science’ that is perceived as rotten. So all of my methodologising, Mike Hulme’s sociologising, even Roger Pielke Jr.’s querying, is quite beside the point. The damning facts are in, and they are either recognised or denied. On that basis it is easy to suppose that I am a sophisticated apologist for the enemy, and that all my uncertainty-mongering effectively provides a licence for those bad people to dissemble and deceive.
Some more personal history might be useful here. I have no expertise in climate science, and so I was reluctant to meddle. But I have been involved in the critical analysis of models of all sorts, and quite early on I good reason to suspect that the GCMs offered little basis for certainty of prediction. I also became aware of the hype and over-selling. A couple of years ago I came to the conclusion that this campaign would run into trouble, and I began to think about research projects that might be useful. One of them is now up for a grant; it’s an analysis of scientific disagreement, designed to bring together opponents and open the way to nonviolent communication. But it was totally implausible to me that the leading UK scientists were either gullible or complicit in a serious fraud at the core of the enterprise. Even when I heard about M&M and the hockey stick scandal, I didn’t connect that dot with the others. There’s a confession for you! Jerry Ravetz, arch-critical-scientist, suckered by the A(C)GW con for years on end. That really shows the power of plausibility. Even now I’m not all the way with my critics; the distinction between incompetence and blundering self-protection on the one hand (plus agenda-driven hype) and self-conscious scientific conspiracy on the other, may still be dividing us.
All through my chequered political career I have lived with the fact that wherever you stand, you always have more radical colleagues. In religion, achieving inter-faith harmony is child’s play compared to intra-faith harmony, and the same holds for the politics of dissent. I was impressed and amused, when my call for courtesy and non-violence in the Guardian blog provoked the most hysterical denunciations anywhere. I can understand this; I’ve been angry at false comrades in my time. But if we all calm down, we might look together at the burden of the criticisms of PNS and see whether they are fatal.
First, there is the discovery that Steve Schneider used my 1986 paper as justification for his nefarious doctrine. On that there are several things to say. First, as Roger ‘tallbloke’ has observed (See tallbloke 23:39:23), the text where this exposure is made, is itself very flawed indeed. Bits are pasted together, and one passage seems to me to have been invented for the occasion. As to Schneider himself, one of the blogs carrying the infamous quote provides a link to a background text. (See http://www.solopassion.com/node/5841) There Schneider explains that the passage as quoted was shorn of a crucial qualifying sentence, and that in all his writings he has condemned just the sort of thing that the modified quote is supposed to justify. Finally, the passage does give a reference to my article, which was a philosophical excursion on the theme ‘Usable knowledge, usable ignorance’. This was presented at a conference intended to lay the foundations of a unified global climate science; I was concerned to remind participants that treating the global ecosystem like something on the lab bench was doomed to failure. I should say that the reactions to the essay varied from incomprehension to outrage; some felt that I was Attacking Science, as usual.
As to Schneider himself, as it happens I have never met him, although we exchanged emails once when I refereed a paper for his journal. The infamous quote can be read as a licence to cheat, but also as practical wisdom. Part of the motivation for PNS was our appreciation that science advisors must sometimes cope with extreme uncertainty, that is quite unwelcome to their clients in the policy process. The scientists could be asked to advise on how high to build future flood barriers, or how many fish of a particular stock to allow to be caught, or how many doses of vaccine to stock up for a possible epidemic. ‘Normal science’ with hard numbers and tight error-bars gets us nowhere here. Even to state the uncertainties is not a simple task, for the clients will interpret them their own way. So the task of being both honest and effective even in that technical context is not trivial; and that is what Schneider is addressing.
In that connection I must disagree with some critics on one important point. They believe that a permission for the dishonest tactics of global-warming science was made in that famous Schneider-Ravetz quote, and so we are responsible for all their sins. Regardless of how that is interpreted, it is really quite unrealistic to imagine that a single quote, that was not even diffused as guidance, could be so influential. Unfortunately, shoddy research and exaggerated claims are not restricted to global-warming science. They are recognised as a serious problem in pharmacological and biomedical fields. Do my critics suppose that somehow the word got through to all those other scientists, that two authorities had given the OK to such practices and so now we can go ahead? And that all those who perverted science before the 1980s had somehow achieved a telepathic anticipation of the Schneider-Ravetz doctrine? I have no acquaintance with the climate-warming scientists, but there is nothing in the leaked emails to indicate that they needed our supposed doctrines or anyone else’s to justify their practices. So while it is an arguable (although incorrect) point that PNS justifies corrupted science, and perhaps could encourage it in the future, to blame me and Schneider for what happened in this case rests on a serious misconception of how ideas have an influence.
Then there is the more general political point, whether my ex-Marxist congenital green radicalism opens the way to new corruptions of science, be they from dictators or from demagogues. I happen to know something about radical critiques of science, be they from the conservative side (starting with Aristophanes) or from the populist side (as Marat in the French Revolution and Lysenko) or just plain authoritarian (the Church against Galileo, or Aryan or Proletarian science). And of course the great lesson of history is that it all depends. In my old book I made a caution about what I then called ‘critical science’, citing the changes that Arthur Miller made in his edition of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, in order that Dr. Stockman could be a worthy victim of McCarthyism rather than a self-deluded failed demagogue. I may have guessed wrong on occasion, but at least I knew the score about the possible corruptions of science from all sides.
I must finally make a point about style of debate. In my Guardian piece I called for courtesy in debate. To some, this might identify me as a wimp. Let me put the point more strongly, and use the concept ‘diss’. Our language has been enriched by this verb, an abbreviation of ‘disrespect’, itself new in the language as a verb. It comes from the culture of street gangs, and it means to humiliate someone and thereby to provoke rage and violence. I have already made it plain that my sharpest critic has treated me with courtesy and respect, and his arguments have been very valuable to me. The other main critic, by contrast, has argued that nearly all my productions have been either vacuous or malign, and that I am morally defective as well. I feel that he has dissed me, and although I would like to reply to his points, I believe that that would only produce more dissing. I regretfully conclude that there is no possibility of dialogue between us at present.
In conclusion, I should declare an interest. My deepest concern is with the situation of science in modern civilisation. Without something that we call ‘public trust’, it would be in big trouble. What will happen as a result of Climategate? As a philosopher, I find that to be the big question for me.
Well, there I am. Thanks again to all my critics for making me think hard about me. I hope it has been useful to you. And thanks to Anthony Watts for posting me at the outset, and for giving me so much space now.